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2009 First Place Essay

Hannah Kapp-Klote
Lawrence Free State High School

The Significance of Separation of Church and State in our Government

In the novel The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, the protagonist is a woman oppressed by her religious totalitarian government. Stripped of her individuality and persecuted for her differences, the woman writes, “Only being free from fear can we as a nation avoid being destroyed by it.” Such a statement shows the need for a separation between church and state: an ideal that has been preserved in the United States for centuries. In a world where passionate defense of this division is often misconstrued as a desire for compulsory atheism, it is important to remember the humanist basis of our nation, the alternative to our own secular ideals, and importance of preserving the diverse perspectives that keep the United States strong. Only by acknowledging these notions can we understand the vitality that a separation between church and state creates, and thus avoid being “destroyed by fear.”

The quest to practice one’s religion freely is perhaps the single strongest reason why the United States exists today. Our nation’s predecessors were small bands of devout nonconformists, looking for a place to practice their religion freely and safely. Their plurality contributed to the freethinking and individualist ideals that we hold true today. By the time of the establishment of American government, these secular tenets were so vital to society that the Bill of Rights began with the famous words “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” The United States of America’s democratic heritage is inextricably linked with the separation of church and state. Thomas Jefferson wrote with equal fervor that “all men are created equal” and “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions.” By maintaining a division between the arena of religion and of the government, we pay tribute to what is one of the United States’ greatest contributions to political theory throughout the world.

However, the separation between church and state is not only significant because of its historic tradition, but is also vital when considering the alternative. Nations like the Islamic Republic of Iran are based on a government dependent on religion. The political thought of the Iranian government is rooted in Islamic law rather than humanist ideals or a secular system that accommodates all citizens. Though Iran is different from the United States for a plethora of reasons, a United States divorced from its secular basis could resemble this theocratic nation. The religious leader of Iran, the Ayatollah, is appointed by Allah rather than the people he governs, and though there are implements of bureaucracy that give the president of Iran more power over policy, there is no question of who has the ultimate authority. Since citizens of Iran are governed under Islamic law rather than secular law, their daily concerns are usually addressed under religious tenets, rather than careful deliberation and justice. Individuals are expected to sacrifice civil rights for the good of the state and Islam, while ethnic minorities and women are deprived of basic human rights based on religious pretexts. Freedom of religion is not seen as an inalienable, absolute right, and anyone seen as ignoring Islamic ideals is socially ostracized and often legally penalized, a victim of the fear destroying Iran internally. The Islamic Republic of Iran is a nation far removed from the democracy of the United States for a variety of reasons, but the primary reason is the United States secular government: by separating the ideology of religion from the justice of the state, the government can eliminate bias and discrimination in policymaking and in the courts, better protecting the civil liberties and freedoms that all United States citizens enjoy. By encouraging progressive thinking and policy based on facts, morals, and even basic common sense rather than millennia old religious documents, the United States can protect its citizens and solve problems for centuries to come. Religion is a crucial aspect of American culture, but it is removed from our governmental system, and this is what makes the United States’ citizens quality of life so high.

No American is the same as another: something that makes the separation of church and the State so vital for the American government. Aside from the obvious fact that Americans are not all Christian, Buddhists, Muslim, or Secular Humanists, Americans also have different backgrounds, ideals, and perspectives. We pride ourselves on living in a nation where so many different ideas and people can coexist peacefully, and our secular government is what makes this possible. American ideas and morals can be based on anything from Biblical passages to personal experience, and combining such ideas is an example for nations and citizens around the world. Indeed, the lack of a single framework that all Americans view the world in is what makes the nation strong: innovation and inspiration can come from anywhere, and our nation’s government makes it possible for all ideas to truly be heard. As long as such diversity is a part of everyday life in America, our nation will always overcome the destruction caused by fear of the unknown.

Though the United States of America faces adversity when it comes to maintaining the separation of church and state, it is this very division that makes our government strong enough to stand against it. By understanding the important role secular government played in this nation’s founding, what a nation without such a divide would like, and how vital a wall between church and state is when protecting national diversity, one can truly understand the beauty of this relatively simple tenet. As long as the boundaries between our nation’s government and our peoples’ religions stand firm, the United States of America need never fear destruction, as Atwood suggested, and can be free of fear itself for years to come.

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Created: May 7, 2009; Revised: September 2, 2014